Chris Garlock, managing editor of Union City for the Metropolitan Washington (D.C.) Council of the AFL-CIO, sends us this essay from Harold Meyerson on the upcoming D.C. Labor Film Fest, kicking off this weekend in Silver Spring, Md. Find a full schedule of films and info on purchasing tickets here.
This year’s D.C. Labor Film Fest—Oct.11–17 at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md—is taking place at a time when even a normally impervious establishment press has noticed that most Americans’ economic lives are in a long-term decline. There are just too many 20-somethings still living with their folks, too many young college grads working in jobs requiring no more than a high-school diploma, too many middle-aged workers dropping out of the labor force after failing to find employment, too many 60-somethings with insufficient savings to retire and way too many American workers with dim, if any, memories of getting a raise.
Economists debate whether to set the beginning of the downward trend in the economic fortunes of most Americans in 1974 or 1979. Cultural historians will note that it took a long time for popular media—movies, in particular—to awaken to this trend. That shouldn’t be surprising. Popular media doesn’t make its money on stories that are downers, and the whittling away of the American middle class is a downer if ever there was one.
In recent years, however, we’ve begun to see a grim economic subtext in some of the culture’s most resonant hits. (What if Walter White in "Breaking Bad" had been able to access Obamacare?) We see more films and TV series showing young people, particularly, in reduced straits. As for films and series showing them fighting back, however—set in today’s America, not in some sci-fi parable-land—we don’t see so much.
That shouldn’t be surprising, either. Culture may precede society on matters of style, but its depictions of political or economic upheaval necessarily come after the fact. What films can do is show the worlds of work, of everyday lives and of struggle in ways that move, entrance, amuse and school us. The value of labor film festivals is to show us the movies that do this in ways that don’t skip over harsh realities or patronize their subjects. It’s to show us movies that go beyond Hollywood’s little-guy populism—a trope going back at least as far as David and Goliath—to, what’s been much more rare in Hollywood, an appreciation of collective action.
Hollywood’s record on unions has certainly been no better than mixed. As actual unions in America have become harder to find, the goons in "On the Waterfront" have retained their iconic status, an image embedded in popular memory on which union-busters and Wall Street Journal editorialists still rely. Here’s hoping somebody can find and restore, and the DC Labor Festival can one day screen, "When Tomorrow Comes," a 1939 matinee-weepie in which lifelong Republican Irene Dunne plays a waitress leading her fellow waitresses out on strike and in singing “Solidarity Forever” (which causes Charles Boyer to fall head over heels for her). It’s by screening such overlooked or otherwise obscure pictures that labor film festivals can enrich our knowledge of the past and present, and even help shape our hopes for the future. A popular memory of solidarity is no guarantee of tomorrow’s labor militance, but it sure as hell can’t hurt.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. This essay appears in the 2013 D.C. Labor Film Fest program guide, available at all Labor Film Fest screenings.